Where in the World Is Harry Reid?

As more lawmakers call on Obama to make a public case before striking Syria, the Senate’s top Democrat is remarkably mum on his position.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks to reporters after the Senate stepped back from the brink of a political meltdown, clearing the way for confirmation of one of President Barack Obama's long-stalled nominations, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 16, 2013. 
National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
Aug. 30, 2013, 12:06 p.m.

In Nevada, some 7,300 miles from Dam­as­cus, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id got an up­date on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s po­s­i­tion on the Syr­i­an con­flict this af­ter­noon.

His aides say the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­er might be half a world away from the war and half a con­tin­ent away from Wash­ing­ton, but he’s as plugged in­to the gov­ern­ment’s con­ver­sa­tions about how to pro­ceed in Syr­ia as any­one in Con­gress.

But the Sen­ate’s top Demo­crat has kept a de­cidedly low pro­file as Pres­id­ent Obama wrestles with wheth­er to send mis­siles in­to Syr­ia after Bashar al-As­sad’s gov­ern­ment used chem­ic­al weapons on its cit­izens.

In­deed, un­like a hand­ful of oth­er Demo­crats, Re­id has not yet said how he prefers the ad­min­is­tra­tion to pro­ceed. One of Re­id’s top lieu­ten­ants and the No. 3 Demo­crat in the Sen­ate, Chuck Schu­mer of New York, at­ten­ded an in­tel­li­gence brief­ing by tele­con­fer­ence on Thursday with U.S. of­fi­cials and sug­ges­ted he would back the ad­min­is­tra­tion if it chose to launch a strike. (Re­id did not join the call, and Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell also did not par­ti­cip­ate.)

“A lim­ited ac­tion to knock out his cap­ab­il­ity of de­liv­er­ing chem­ic­al weapons in the fu­ture could be ap­pro­pri­ate, but we have to be very care­ful not to let our in­volve­ment es­cal­ate,” Schu­mer said in a state­ment.

Asked why his lieu­ten­ants shared their po­s­i­tions while Re­id has not, a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide said it was too early to for­mu­late a po­s­i­tion. “Things are still de­vel­op­ing,” the aide said.

The reas­on for keep­ing such a low pro­file, ac­cord­ing to former Re­id aide Jim Man­ley, is straight­for­ward. There’s little up­side for the ma­jor­ity lead­er to speak up be­fore the pres­id­ent has made his de­cision pub­lic.

“He’s pre­dis­posed to sup­port the pres­id­ent and would urge his col­leagues to do so as well,” Man­ley said.

Still, it seems Re­id soon will have to con­front a ques­tion that’s gain­ing mo­mentum: Should the pres­id­ent seek con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion be­fore launch­ing a mil­it­ary strike in Syr­ia? A grow­ing num­ber of law­makers, in­clud­ing at least one Sen­ate Demo­crat, are clam­or­ing for such an au­thor­iz­a­tion. Rep. Scott Ri­gell, R-Va., re­cruited some 140 law­makers, in­clud­ing 21 Demo­crats, to sign a pe­ti­tion ur­ging Obama to get con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion for a mil­it­ary strike.

House Speak­er John Boehner is call­ing for the pres­id­ent to tell Con­gress and the pub­lic what he’s plan­ning to do, stress­ing the need for the White House to con­sult with law­makers.

“If the pres­id­ent be­lieves this in­form­a­tion makes a mil­it­ary re­sponse im­per­at­ive, it is his re­spons­ib­il­ity to ex­plain to Con­gress and the Amer­ic­an people the ob­ject­ives, strategy, and leg­al basis for any po­ten­tial ac­tion,” said Boehner spokes­man Brendan Buck.

There’s at least one good reas­on to sug­gest Re­id might not in­sist the pres­id­ent get Con­gress’ bless­ing. Some Re­pub­lic­ans are already sig­nal­ing they would not au­thor­ize an at­tack.

“We can’t simply launch a few mis­siles and hope for the best,” said Sen. James In­hofe, the rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee.

That’s a point not lost on Sen­ate Demo­crats. For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Sen. Bob Men­en­dez said that while he would like to see the pres­id­ent seek con­gres­sion­al sup­port be­fore a launch, Men­en­dez poin­ted out that un­der the War Powers Act, the pres­id­ent has the au­thor­ity to en­gage the armed forces for up to 60 days without le­gis­lat­ive per­mis­sion.

A timeline for when Re­id might stake a po­s­i­tion is murky. In May, Re­id in­dic­ated he pre­ferred a cau­tious ap­proach to war. Even as re­ports swirled then that chem­ic­al weapons had been used, the ma­jor­ity lead­er showed little eager­ness to re­act quickly.

“My per­son­al feel­ing is that the evid­ence shows that [As­sad] has used chem­ic­al weapons. But re­mem­ber, we have been through this be­fore,” Re­id said, ac­cord­ing to the Las Ve­gas Sun, re­call­ing the Ir­aq war. “The yel­low cake [urani­um], re­mem­ber that? There was a rush to judg­ment and a war; that was one of the reas­ons we rushed to war.”

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